A New Letters Literary Awards Honorable Mention
I smell September in the air as I run down the sloping hill, the new, white kite string in my small hand. The kite only twirls and twirls, its yellow rag tail grazing the ground each time it passes. Drying grass and its anchor of dirt puff up around my ankles and settle in my pants cuffs.
September brushes against the skin on my arms, blows through my red hair and into my ear turned down toward the bottom of the hill, my eyes upward, watching the kite until I arrive, puffing and wheezing and letting the air pass through my vocal cords to give tone to my body coming to rest.
I am so grateful for being out in the open. I could not stand to be under a tree or on a porch when there’s a sky overhead like the one I own at this moment.
Turning back up the hill for what must be the fourteenth time, I spool the kite string back onto the small piece of branch. I pick up my home-fashioned red diamond.
Reaching the top of the hill again and dropping my kite and kite string spool, I stick both hands into my pockets, fishing for my little knife. It’s not in my right pocket, so I concentrate on the left, first bringing out my balled-up handkerchief; a clothespin left from helping mother with the laundry; my bright blue pinky squirt gun; then loose change amounting to seventy-three cents; the small, mother-of-pearl-handled knife among the bright coins cupped in my palm.
I stuff all of the items back into my pocket and hold the knife in the fingers of both hands, inspecting. I loved that knife. Uncle Roger loved it too, before he gave it to me. Shifting the knife to my right hand, I slide it into my right pocket, turning it over and over, feeling the smooth, flat sides and the humps of the two blades and I look out to the horizon.
I am surrounded by September. I would have to walk through all of twenty minutes worth of September to get home, which appears as a small white cube down toward the trees with the creek running through them. What if I had all day to walk down that side of the hill? Not even all the way home?—?just down the hill, through the grass and clover gone to seed, past the groundhog mounds and the tern’s nest in the thistle bush with the small, putty eggshells recently broken open?—?robbed by a skunk. What else would I find there in my land of five hundred, fifty paces with hours and hours to cover the distance (a snail’s pace by a human’s standards)?
Like the grass anchored by the dirt, I am anchored by Uncle Roger’s knife held between my curled fingers, palm, and thumb covered over the end. But yet I am determined to move and I step one step and then another, taking all the time in the world to locate myself in one new place after another.
I am reminded of Uncle Roger’s sea voyages and I look to my left as I step. His horizon was flat, featureless except for the endless waves bobbing up and down, calling to him and leading the way to his next destination. Another step and I am packing with Uncle Roger in his small studio apartment off the main part of the house. He stands with his steel-rimmed glasses and graying crew-cut; pudgy fingers holding his note cards, the tremor in his hands visibly shaking the paper.
Standing close to him?—?close to his dark blue wool jacket and the warmth it provides me?—?he crosses off each item packed in his hard-shell Samsonite suitcase. Concern for him fills my heart. I stand closer to him. The lines he draws are jagged, crooked, and reflect the instability of the flesh, nerves, and muscles of his hand. All of his writing is this way and I imagine him writing each letter rolling down railroad tracks in a car without tires and how my own teeth would clatter were I riding with him.
Step. A land mine explodes and grasshoppers take short flight in front of me and land, only to be launched again and again. September cuts the air with its high buzz-saw cicada-song, pulls me to a stop, and I again attempt to decode the rise-and-fall tempo of its drone. It is a mystery of sound.
I yank my shirt from the elastic waistband of my pants, reach in along the inside to feel the ridges of skin the tightness has made and rub back and forth for relief. I think of all of the things that bring that feeling of relief, like letting the air escape my lungs, through my throat with sound, after an extreme effort. Like running home from playing down the road when it’s turned dark and finally grasping the screen door handle up on the porch. And the relief of finally sitting down, supplied with buttered popcorn, soda pop, and a slow-poke sucker in a cool, dark movie theater after having waited through morning chores and then a long line in the afternoon sun when you could have done a million other things.
And the glad relief I felt the year before, running home from the school bus stop and finding Uncle Roger’s round-nosed and chrome-fitted Buick with its freshly pressed-out tire tracks in the dirt and the knowledge that now I would find out the details of Moroccan market stall trading only hinted at in postcards sent weeks before but only recently received.
I am tempted to sit down in the dirt, I’m moving so slowly down the hill, but September coaxes me on. I raise my leg in slow motion, swing my arms in the same tempo until I can’t anymore and I have to put the next foot down and leap off of it to land in a mushroom cloud of dust three feet further into the desert of Northern Africa, standing before the gates of the Chella Necropolis Cemetery that Uncle Roger described to us in historical detail.
I would watch his eyes fill with the worldliness and irony of his voyages out and returns homeward?—?his longing for experience and knowledge always approximal with his love of family; his growing infirmity; his love of me. He would tell us?—?Father and Mother and my two brothers?—?of when he had been in the capital of Rabat and had been invited by a prominent businessman with whom he had met on another of his trips abroad, to a celebration at the King’s palace. He knew that I would keep the secret that the stories told were for me, chiefly; that he knew I was the one who would appreciate them most.
The Moroccan trip was the last one that Uncle Roger took. I am now the one to forage out?—?the one to keep Uncle Roger’s tradition alive; the one to make my packing lists; keep stationary to send to family and friends; carry personal business cards to hand out; and the one to keep the little mother-of-pearl knife, in its soft suede slipcase, at the ready for the next voyage.
Exasperated in remembering I have to go back and get the kite, I run again, laboring under the looming finality of a spent September afternoon, not wishing to know that I have to go on from here.
“Let’s see that fine red kite you have there.”, Uncle Roger says to me when I finally arrive, to his relief, at the bottom of the hill after what seems like hours since I ran up it at top speed the first time, fifteen minutes before.
“I believe you have to have a little more weight on that tail. We’ll put some more of this old yellow tablecloth your mother gave us on it.”
September holds us both in its airy-sweet, loving arms as Uncle Roger tears the yellow cloth with his trembling hands and ties it to the rag tail, ensuring it’s flight now.
I stand closer to him.
From Pool of Souls and Other Stories, a collection of short stories written while at the Kansas City Art Institute, the University of Iowa, Iowa City, and the Iowa Writers Workshop in Iowa City.
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